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rochefort [Film Festival 10.06.15] horror western

The tiny Wild West town of Bright Hope will be familiar to anyone who's ever seen a Western, modern or otherwise. There's the saloon, the jail, the noble sheriff and the ever present threat of violence from both the white man and the Natives. But in Bone Tomahawk, director S. Craig Zahler's tale of Western Horror, the threat comes in the form of a tribe of savage cannibals, who kidnap Samantha O'Dwyer (Lili Simmons) and spirit her away in the middle of the night to their cave in the distant hill country. Her crippled husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson) sets out to bring her home, accompanied by Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell), Deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins) and gunslinger dandy Brooder (Matthew Fox). Their several-days journey will take them through bleakly barren territory where they'll be vulnerable to the gruelling elements and bandits. And even if they survive the trip, they'll have to deal with a brutal enemy that doesn't fear them, and knows they're coming.

In a way, Bone Tomahawk is on the opposite end of the filmmaking spectrum from another recent bizarro Western, Cowboys and Aliens, a big-budget genre fusion that failed to connect with audiences. That film's failure was probably due, at least in part, to the script's inability to create genuinely compelling characters, as each was only sparingly fleshed out. In Bone Tomahawk, we spend more than half the running time getting to know our small band of rescuers. Russell's Sheriff Hunt is a dialled-down variation on his performance in Tombstone, and he's the stoic voice of reason that keeps the group from falling apart. It's not a groundbreaking performance for him, but he's one of those actors you just root for, and that definitely applies here. O'Dwyer spends the entire movie hobbling around on a crutch, and Wilson does fine work in his portrayal of a gentleman pushed to his limits. Jenkins gets the funniest lines throughout, his Chicory a clumsy but well-intentioned widower whose best trait is his loyalty to his boss. And Matthew Fox rules as the white-clad Brooder, a smooth talker and crack shot proud of his many kills. He's the Doc Holliday of the bunch, and Fox makes him into what I believe is his best character to date.

While this is a more believable film than most of its genre-mashing cousins, the style is a mixed bag, and causes a few problems while fixing others. The camerawork is measured and painterly, and not at all flashy, but it sometimes lacks immediacy, many scenes playing out their high points in wide shots that keep us too far away from the good stuff. There's also a sense throughout that first-time director Zahler needed more coverage of his subjects; shots play out too long without cutting or are reused over and over to the point that we can't help but notice the redundancy. It'll probably rub some people the wrong way, and it keeps the film from achieving anything resembling greatness, but I found the overall effect to be an interesting break from the norm. The sparseness of its structure, especially in the first half hour, takes some getting used to but the payoff is worth it, and thanks to the slow but effective middle you ultimately care about these characters once they face off with the cannibal tribe in the bloody climax.

When reviewing a movie that fuses unlikely genres, it's pretty much impossible to not compare it to others like it, especially considering it's not that crowded a field. I'd put Bone Tomahawk in the same category as films like The Missing or The 13th Warrior, which may sound like faint praise since neither are the most revered of films. But I've watched each of those movies more than once, and over time they've really grown on me. I wouldn't even call them guilty pleasures; in light of all the formulaic, been-there done-that stuff that has come out since, their willingness to take chances, no matter how seemingly bonkers, increases their charm and continues to separate them from the pack. I have a feeling that Bone Tomahawk will age fairly well, and in time may even achieve a kind of cult sleeper status. Plus, Kurt Russell vs. cannibals.

Recommended Release: Tombstone

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